In an earlier post I talked about how Jesus displayed his propensity for mercy and inclusion when he met the woman at the well in John 4:1-42.
At that time I was basing my remarks upon what is the current wisdom among many progressive Christians, that the Jewish culture of the time was racist, sexist and obsessed with legalistic purity and social class. In contrast Jesus, and by association, Christians, stand out as models of exemplary behavior. Of course, Jesus being Jesus, would be the best example of how we should treat others, but we don’t need to demonize the Jews in order to do so.
As you may know, I am reading Amy-Jill Levine’s book, “The Misunderstood Jew” and I keep coming across material that causes me to take stock of my world view. At one point she illustrates the obvious inconstancies with the popular Christian take on this story:
1. Although we think of the Samaritan woman as being marginalized due to her ethnicity, we need to remember that here Jesus is in Samaria and he would have been the marginalized minority. He is the daring one, by initiating a conversation with a Samaritan. The feud between the Jews and the Samaritans was a two way street.
2. We assume that his disciples are amazed because he is talking with an unclean woman but it may be just as likely that it is because he is talking with a Samaritan as well as a woman. Jesus had other exchanges with women in the Gospels and it did not often astound people, casting doubt on the presumption that Jewish men did not address women in conversation. That being said, undoubtedly first century Palestine was patriarchal and Jesus himself had no women in his inner circle. Christianity can not seriously claim to be a uniquely ‘feminist’ tradition.
3. It is suggested that this woman was of ill repute, as she was drawing water alone, at midday. She also admits to having had several husbands and is living with a man out of wedlock. But this, according to Levine, does not make her ritually unclean, as the Law does not specifically address these issues. If she actually had been a shamed and shunned women it would have been unlikely that the villagers would have listened to her account in the first place, much less believe her.
I think it is important to consider what Levine and other Jewish scholars are saying here. The common Christian take on scriptures (which I am guilty of) – that in which Jesus stands out vividly against a backdrop of a despicable people and a despicable system, is a terrible misrepresentation of an entire nation, their history, faith and culture. Certainly it is not necessary for us to beleive this in order to see the divinity of Christ nor appreciate his teachings. The gulf that has existed over the centuries between us and our Jewish brothers and sisters is the result of misunderstanding each other’s beliefs. In our case this misunderstanding has resulted in two thousand years of crusades, inquisitions, pogroms and the Holocaust.
Though she is not Jewish, I am sorry for having insulted this woman, and in the process our Jewish friends.